Imago Therapy for Relationships

Imago therapy is a specific style of relationship therapy designed to help conflict within relationships become opportunities for healing and growth. The term imago is Latin for "image" and, within imago relationship therapy, refers to an "unconscious image of familiar love."

Imago relationship therapy was developed by Harville Hendrix, PhD and Helen LaKelly Hunt, PhD. In the late 1970s, both clinicians had experienced divorce in their relationship history. After looking for effective and evidence-based support for understanding relationship dynamics and finding very little in the way of helpful resources, they chose to build from their own experiences to research and develop an evidence-based model of counseling that would help facilitate healing and growth in committed relationships.

Imago and Relationships

The concept of imago as an image of familiar love suggests that our early relationships teach us something about love and about ourselves. Through these early experiences, we develop a sense of an identity related to love, such as what love is and what we need to do in order to experience love from others and feel safe.

In our early relationships, we start to develop a sense of self-worth based on how we are treated by important people in our lives. We start to develop attachment patterns and start to gain a sense of how we think we should be treated by others.

For example, if growing up you only received praise and feelings of love from your caregivers when you performed well at a task, you may move into your adult life believing that you must perform well in order to be worthy of love and to receive care and comfort from your partner. If your partner turns away or shuts down on you, leaving you feeling unloved, you might quickly start to reflect on your own behaviors, replaying things and looking for what you may have "done wrong" for the person to treat you this way.

Our intimate relationships are prime ground for bringing up raw spots, old wounds, and patterned behaviors. These connections can leave us feeling close and cared for, as well as lonely and abandoned. It is not surprising that our intimate relationships often tend to bring up old, familiar emotional wounds since imago therapy suggests that we pick partners who feel "familiar" to us.

When these old wounds come up in relationships, it can give us a chance to heal and grow. Imago relationship therapy believes this to be true as well. As Dr. Hendrix stated in his best-selling book Getting the Love You Want, "We are born in relationship, we are wounded in relationship, and we can be healed in relationship."

Picking a Familiar Partner

Imago therapy suggests that we choose partners who remind us of our early caregivers—a combination of their good qualities and not-so-good qualities. This is a reason why the person we seem to click with feels familiar to us and why we might be comfortable to let our guard down with them. Because they have traits we are familiar with, we also tend to know how to navigate those traits because of what we learned growing up.

To think that we might select a partner with the same not-so-great traits as an early caregiver might drive us crazy! It makes sense, though, because we tend to find it easier to navigate situations and people who feel familiar to us. If you were used to getting the cold shoulder from a caregiver during times of conflict or distress, you might feel a strange, familiar comfort in a partner who does that as well, as compared to someone who is more assertive and actively engages in verbal exchange during times of conflict or distress.

What Makes It Different?

Although these concepts are utilized in different types of dynamic psychotherapy, imago therapy emphasizes that our early attachment experiences with caregivers may directly influence our choice of partner as an adult. As we date, we may come across someone who seems all too familiar and easy to connect with, almost as if we have known them before or for a long time.

What imago therapy suggests is that these people feel familiar to us because they parallel relationship dynamics we have been in before with caregivers in our early experiences. When we feel comfortable and familiar with someone, we begin to let our guard down and grow closer, which makes it easier to build a romantic relationship. The closer we become over time, we may find old emotional wounds surfacing within our relationship and wonder what is happening.

Another thing that makes imago therapy different from other styles of therapy is that it is focused on using conflict and distress and opportunities for healing and growth. Rather than teaching people how to simply "fight better" or find ways to avoid conflict within your relationship, imago therapy encourages couples to lean into those moments of distress and use them for exploration, curiosity, and learning.

Imago therapy is collaborative, meaning that there is not a distinct role of a therapist as an advice-giving authority but, rather, the therapist works together with the couple to take a look at what is happening for them and healing the relationship as a whole. The therapist allows for the couple to be the experts of their dynamic, facilitating the conversation in a way that allows partners to learn from each other.

What Can It Help With?

Imago therapy was developed specifically for the understanding and healing of relationships. Some of the issues that imago therapy can help with include:

  • Communication challenges
  • Recurring disagreements/conflict
  • Feelings of disconnection
  • Lack of intimacy
  • Infidelity/trust 

You do not have to necessarily be in distress to participate in imago relationship therapy. In fact, couples who are not in distress can significantly benefit from participating, learning about these dynamics within the relationship and gaining a better understanding of themselves and their partner.

Who Can Imago Help?

Those in committed relationships with a significant other would be excellent candidates to benefit from imago therapy. Couples at all stages and seasons of their relationship are encouraged to participate, from dating and premarital couples to those who have been together for many years.

Individuals can also participate in imago relationship therapy. People who are dating can certainly benefit from learning about their relationship patterns, choices of partners, and how to find and connect with someone who is a safe person and a healthy partner.

Imago Dialogue

One core aspect of imago relationship therapy is the imago dialogue. This dialogue is a structured method, facilitated by a trained imago therapist, which allows partners to gain understanding and increase empathy. The goals of imago dialogue are to:

  • Remove negative, hurtful language from communication
  • Create a safe emotional environment for both partners to openly share
  • Allow both partners equal space and eliminate the idea that one partner has more power over the other

Within this dialogue there is a "sender" and a "receiver," the sender being the one to share thoughts and feelings openly with their receiver. The "receiver" practices the following three steps during the imago dialogue:

  1. Mirroring: Repeating back what you have heard your partner say, in order to gain clarification and understanding. The receiver does this with no judgment, criticism or response, but simply repeating back what they have heard their partner say.
  2. Validation: The receiver works to validate parts of what their partner (the sender) has shared, what makes sense to them. As they are doing this, they are letting their partner know that they "get it" and are actively trying to understand. If there are parts that the receiver does not yet understand, they can ask the sender to share more.
  3. Empathy: At this point in the dialogue, the receiver shares with their partner what they think the other might be feeling. Sharing on this level is a way to let their partner know they are gaining a deeper understanding of their emotional experience, allowing the partner to feel seen and heard.

Imago for Individuals

Although imago relationship therapy is a model of counseling designed to effectively work with couples in committed relationships, you certainly do not need to be in an active relationship to benefit from imago therapy. In fact, many people who are dating may find this type of therapy very useful for examining their own history and how it might be influencing their dating patterns and choices in partners.

By participating in imago therapy by yourself, you can learn what some of your old wounds or emotional raw spots might be that are impacting your relationships. Finding a sense of healing around these raw spots can be valuable in helping you move forward with more confidence and learning how to be a great, compassionate partner in your next relationship.

Common Questions

How can I get started with imago therapy?

Two main ways to start learning more about imago therapy and how it can help your relationship include workshops and therapy sessions. There are several varied workshops available, all based on the model of imago therapy. Some of the workshops available are tailored specifically to:

  • Premarital couples
  • Couples in distress
  • Couples with children
  • Christian couples
  • Same-sex couples
  • Individuals

Workshops are offered around the world and it is likely that there are workshops available in your area or region.

The other method of participation is in counseling with an imago trained therapist. Sessions are traditionally offered one hour at a time, although there are often additional services available such as intensives that last a few hours or retreats that might last for a few days.

Having face to face time with an imago trained therapist allows you and your partner to actively dig into the dynamics of your relationship. During that time you will be using dialogue, facilitated by the therapist, to explore and learn what happens for your partner when there is distress or conflict in the relationship.

Actively seeking understanding can increase empathy and create a sense of connection and healing between partners so the same patterns and issues stop coming up time and time again.

How can I find an imago therapist?

Many therapists who work with couples have likely had some training in—and basic understanding of—imago relationship therapy. You can find resources in your area, such as trained and even fully certified imago relationship therapists, at sites such as Imago Relationships International. There you can search a database of trained imago therapists from around the world, searching by your location and type of relationship need. You can also discover locations for a variety of workshops available, which are based on the principles of imago relationship therapy.

Are there times when imago therapy might not help?

As with other types of relationship therapy, there are times when imago therapy might not be a good fit for your relationship. These times might include situations such as domestic violence, active substance abuse, or other addictive behaviors that can get in the way of a successful relationship therapy experience. Imago therapy may only be effective when issues like this are resolved first. 

Additional resources

If you are interested in learning about imago relationship therapy but not yet sure if you are interested in attending a workshop or therapy sessions, there are several popular books written by Dr. Hendrix and Dr. Hunt that you can check out, including:

  • Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples
  • Keeping the Love You Find: A Personal Guide
  • Making Marriage Simple: 10 Relationship Saving Truths
  • Receiving Love: Transforming Your Relationship By Letting Yourself Be Loved
  • The Space Between: The Point of Connection
  • The Happy Couple's Secret: How to Build a Lasting, Satisfying Relationship

Many of the titles have a workbook version available to help better understand the material and learn how it might apply to your own relationship patterns.

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